Why it’s so difficult to remember new words

You’re not alone in this one!

No, you don’t have a bad memory! Lots of language learners tend to focus on the negative when it comes to learning vocabulary. By “blaming” their bad memory they use that as an excuse to not put in the time and effort to expand their vocabulary.

Unfortunately, there is no magic app, program or device that will do it for you – consider it like a diet or getting fit. Learning new words will always require time, effort and stamina. But the good news is that if you stick with it, it will become easier and 2nd nature to your brain.

Instead of focussing on the effort it takes to remember the words, focus on the nice feeling when you can actually understand more and more and then actively put newly acquired words into your own conversations.

I’ve put together some of the best ways to learn vocabulary. These methods are fun, creative and easy.

Practical Ideas for Retaining Vocabulary

Best ways to learn vocabulary – try them out!

  • Focus on useful words: the more practical and connected to your world these words are (hobby, sport, your job, etc) the easier it will be to remember them.
  • Make a game out of using them and give yourself points or rewards if you use a new word in a conversation, set the bar higher and higher! Also try out some vocabulary games like crosswords, word search, hangman, etc.
  • Learn words in context. Don’t write down just the word but a whole sentence or two.
  • Beware of  “false friends” – those are words that look like they would have the same meaning in your language but actually don’t!
  • Create mind maps and this way expand your vocabulary with synonyms, antonyms, phrases, context, etc.
  • If you pick up new words from TV shows, movies, politicians, etc. try to always associate the word with the scene, person or situation. It will stay in your memory longer.
  • Start building Memory Palaces: this is an ancient memory method where you visualize a room or house you’re very familiar with and park different words on furniture, walls, etc. As you then move clockwise through the building without crossing your own path, you can recall the words. The clue here is to make your mental images as creative and exaggerated as possible using all senses so you can retain them even better. A great way to get started on this method is with Anthony Metivier.
  • Try recording yourself. This way you focus on pronunciation and content that is important to you. Record shorter snippets, label them for later reference and listen to yourself anywhere!
  • If apps are your thing you could give Duolingo or WordUp a try.

Find out what works for YOU

It’s really important to remember that there’s not only one way to learn new vocabulary. What might work for someone else doesn’t necessarily have to be the best for you.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What kind of vocabulary do you need to learn? Business and factual, every day vocabulary, current affairs and politics, scientific,….
  • What methods have worked well for you in the past?
  • Do you like to draw, listen to music, come up with silly but memorable images, like to use apps, make flashcards, etc…?
  • Could you get others involved and motivate each other? A friend, partner, your children,…?
  • I’ve compiled this list of resources perhaps something here will catch your attention and you’ll feel motivated! There is also an article on how to improve your memory.

My Advice

  • Don’t overdo it. According to the BBC 8 new words a day is as much as you can learn.
  • Don’t forget to review: after 24 hours, after one week, after one month. Spaced repetition is the key to flattening the forgetting curve. You can also use apps for this. (Memrise, Anki, TinyCards, etc.)
  • Actively use the words!
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
  • Use pen and paper. Nothing beats that direct link between hand movement and brain. Typing may be faster but does not have the same effect.
  • Find your own system: use colors for verbs, adjectives, genders, cases, etc., think about how you want to organize your notebook: by phrases, topics, etc.